Prison Beauty Pageants!

Prison Beauty Pageants

Instead of a modeling contract, the winner of this Siberian prison's beauty contest gets early release. Too bad life on the outside is just as tough.

In the middle of a small room, with dirty-white walls decorated with pictures of Jesus and an array of plastic plants, a young woman stands on a stool. She wears a cotton candy-pink ball gown. At her feet, three other women sew tiny flowers along the hem of her giant hoop skirt. Her lips are painted a circus- clown red; light brown curls frame her face. "A woman should always be beautiful," says Natalya Khapova, 26, as she poses on her pedestal. "Not just outside the fence. Even if she's in here, she should show her beauty. A woman is everything gentle and wonderful -- or she should be." The fence Khapova refers to surrounds the correctional facility UF 91/9, an all-women's prison camp some 20 miles away from the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk. Her ball gown is one of three outfits she will don for the prison's main event of the year: the annual "Miss Spring" beauty contest. As with most women at UF 91/9, the reason for Khapova's stay isn't entirely clear. At first, she says she was "just a witness" to an undisclosed crime. When pressed, she mutters that she was "an accomplice -- or something like that" in an assault and robbery charge. Khapova, who has six-and-a-half years left of her eight-year sentence, is one of more than 1000 female inmates serving time here for everything from drug possession to murder. Today, however, Khapova focuses on something decidedly more appealing than her long-term fate.

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